Text by Geoffrey Smith
Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions
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In November 1825 Corot, following the well trodden path of the young painter, traveled to Italy where he stayed for over two years. This first stay in Rome (he later returned for two more extended visits) provided him with his life’s inspiration and set the classicising tone for his later work. He produced numerous sketches in and around Rome many of which he used in later years as the basis for his timeless visions of a blissful Arcadia. He occupies a position between his fellow countryman Claude Lorrain (who lived most of his life in Rome and also used the Roman campagnia as a model for his own version of Elysium) and the Impressionists, for some of whom he was a father figure.
Indeed, no artist of the previous generation had a more significant influence on the Impressionists than Corot. Famous for his generosity and kindliness towards younger artists or those experiencing hard times, he offered advice and help to all with Pissarro and Berthe Morisot in particular benefiting from his benevolence. In terms of working method he anticipated the Impressionists in his practice of working out of doors. His plein-air paintings, in contrast to his more ‘finished’ studio output, were usually restricted in size and, similar to later Impressionist works, are characterised by free and rapid brushstrokes. The high regard in which Corot was held by the Impressionists can be judged by Edgar Degas’ comment that ‘he anticipated everything.’ Claude Monet went even further, maintaining that ‘There is only one master here – Corot. We are nothing compared to him, nothing’.
This appreciation was shared by patrons and collectors who, after Baudelaire began to champion his work in 1846, flocked to buy his paintings. During his lifetime he exhibited over 100 paintings at the Salon but he always retained his renowned modesty and generosity of spirit, on one occasion helping his ailing fellow artist Daumier to buy a house.
The Boatman of Mortefontaine is typical of Corot’s later output in that even though it was inspired by the park of Mortefontaine outside Paris, the painting is, in the main, an imaginary construct. The elements of its composition are almost identical to Souvenir de Mortefontaine in the Louvre, but in this painting a temple appears in the hazy middle distance across the lake where there is none in the Louvre painting. Corot uses some of his favourite motifs, a tranquil body of water, a leaning birch tree and a willow with diaphanous foliage, all enveloped in a hushed and breathless atmosphere, redolent of delightful summer languor. His range of coloir is limited to greys, yellows and greens, his primary interest being in the manipulation of tonal values and the creation of a very special soft light which pervades his late landscapes engendering a dreamlike ambience.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1865 Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Blue Bower, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts
1866 Édouard Manet: Woman with a Parrot, New York, Metropolitan Museum
1866 Winslow Homer: Prisoners from the Front, New York, Metropolitan Museum
1870 John Everett Millais: The Boyhood of Raleigh, London, Tate